Cairns Taipans started the season on fire but have cooled as New Zealand Breakers and Melbourne United have started clicking into gear.
All the while Perth Wildcats and Adelaide 36ers, last year’s grand finalists, have shown both strengths and weaknesses after some difficult player changes in the offseason.
Sydney Kings, Townsville Crocs and the embattled Wollongong Hawks have had some tough days but all look capable of strapping up and taking the league on a wild ride in the second half of the season.
So here is Downtown’s update on the NBL’s major award candidates at this point in the campaign.
Most Valuable Player: Jordan McRae (Melbourne United) / Josh Childress (Sydney Kings)With the influx of NBA calibre imports and the return of Brock Motum, Daniel Kickert and David Barlow - there was always going to be a log jam of MVP candidates at this point of the season.
For mine you can’t split McRae and Childress right now.
McRae’s team has one more win and he leads the league in scoring, from Childress.
But Childress’ ability to drive a less-experienced side to wins has him right alongside the United ace in my reckoning.
Yes Childress was suspended for dropping the people’s elbow on Jesse Wagstaff but last time I looked the MVP is not a best and fairest award.
I don’t think these two will be the lone frontrunners for this honour once the season ends or even when we get to the half way mark.
Ones to watch: There is a big list here but let’s start with Scottie Wilbekin who was amazing in the opening few rounds before teams starting standing off him and testing out his jump shot. Wilbekin’s range will come so he will be around the mark. Jermaine Beal has been outstanding for a rather uncomfortable Wildcats team as has Adam Gibson for Adelaide. Brock Motum will force himself into the discussion as will veteran Aussies Mark Worthington (Melbourne United) and Damian Martin (Perth). Judging on his more recent form Cedric Jackson is right back into the NBL swing too, he might be the sneaky pick should New Zealand’s form continue.
Most Improved Player: Corey Webster (New Zealand Breakers)Webster has been handed major minutes and near doubled his scoring average from last year averaging 15 points per game up from eight points last season and six points over his career.
Webster was a key player on the Tall Blacks FIBA World Cup side and it’s obviously pushed him into another level once he was back in the NBL mix as he is now a key scorer for the Breakers.
While a minutes upgrade will almost always boost a players’ numbers, Webster has kept his field goal percentage at 41 per cent, boosted his three-point percentage from 34 to 41 per cent and taken his free throw percentage up to 71 from 65 per cent. Those free throw numbers should go even higher as he develops more poise and improves his technique.
With Cedric Jackson to run the team and Thomas Abercrombie, Mika Vukona, Alex Pledger and Ekene Ibekwe to do the heavy lifting, Webster is perfectly placed to take his scoring average even higher as the season goes on.
Although he will also face much more defensive attention.
Ones to watch: Tom Garlepp has had a similar rise in numbers to Webster but had less wins so far. If the Kings kick on as expected Garlepp and Webster could be going head to head for this honour. I’m also a big fan of how much Shaun Bruce has lifted his performance this season following a full offseason in Cairns working on his game and playing in the Queensland league. Bruce has played more minutes and while he isn’t a stat-stuffer, his play has generally been heady for the Taipans while Cam Gliddon and Scottie Wilbekin get a rest.
Sixth Man of the Year: Torrey Craig (Cairns Taipans)
Craig is a super athlete who has warmed to his role as the Taipans impact player off the bench.
As a versatile wing player who can even pinch-hit down low, Craig excels at playing with the second unit or attacking the tiring starters of the opposition.
He has also had a few hot spells with his shooting which led to a couple of the Taipans’ early season wins.
But he has Ekene Ibekwe right on his tail with the Breakers’ import adjusting to the finicky ways of NBL referees and stopping the foul trouble which threatened to cut short his stay in the NBL.
If I was writing this next week then Ibekwe may have moved ahead of Craig - yes it’s that close.
Ones to watch: Ibekwe is right in the mix as explained above while Nate Tomlinson and Lucas Walker are both mounting strong cases with Melbourne United as is the usual Perth suspect of Jesse Wagstaff. Jason Cadee (Sydney Kings) may also shoot up the rankings if he has a few more hot shooting nights. Throw Rhys Carter into this mix as well with his solid play vital for the Breakers.
Defensive Player of the Year: Damian Martin (Perth Wildcats)
No I haven’t taken the easy way out and just plonked Martin’s name down again.
He remains the defensive master of the NBL as shown by his amazing nine steal, nine rebound, eight assist masterclass against Sydney in late October.
But many others are making a case to be considered with Martin so this will need revisiting later in the season.
Ones to watch: Mark Worthington has been a rock for Melbourne United, Mickell Gladness has generally been strong for the Crocs while Josh Childress is also making himself known defensively and is leading the league in blocks right now, ahead of the much taller Gladness.
Rookie of the Year: Angus Brandt (Sydney Kings)
For mine Brandt is all but home for this award unless we throw a few of the younger imports into this mix.
Brandt has been a solid centre for the Kings and looks stronger with each week, especially after a tough offseason where he missed a few games with injuries.
I must say I enjoy seeing Brandt bang around with the best bigs in the NBL.
Ones to watch: It’s hard to see other contenders getting enough minutes to catch Brandt but Corey Maynard has been good in short minutes for the Taipans while Chris Patton has started to show some form and toughness for Melbourne United, although as a development player Patton, unless upgraded to the roster, will only play some away games along with the home matches.
Keeping the faith with players and picking the right imports is no easy task and he did both then reaped the rewards despite Cairns’ perilous road trips in the opening two months.
But in recent weeks the Taipans have not been able to handle new defensive plans from the opposition and aren’t moving the ball as well.
If they get back on track then Fearne could take this honour but he will face stiff competition from here.
Ones to watch: Dean Vickerman has done a brilliant job to keep his side’s season alive in the opening week when they were clearly behind the rest of the competition due to missing so many players to the Tall Blacks before the season began. Darryl McDonald has steadied the ship at Melbourne United and is making his super-talented side play together - he will get a look in as should Joey Wright (Adelaide) and Damian Cotter (Sydney) if their clubs can make the post season.
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